Phantasmagoria - The Game

Jake Spencer
11 July 2012

Like so many PC titles of its mid-nineties vintage, the Phantasmagoria series is neither game nor movie, but a hybrid of both. This feature will review each piece - game and movie - separately, followed by a holistic conclusion about the series.

Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five

Amidst all the talk of cheesy acting, sexual violence, and extreme gore, there's a crucial distinction that's often forgotten in most discussions of Phantasmagoria. This was a game not just for computer game enthusiasts, but for novices and outsiders, also; primarily, even. Viewing Phantasmagoria through this lens still won't make it appealing to the detractors, but it is key to understanding and appreciating the game, as well as identifying its most egregious flaws.

Phantasmagoria is tremendously ambitious in its presentation, but the interactivity and puzzle design is downright restrained. For a time, it seemed like adventure games were locked in an arms race to see which could have the greatest number of inventory items, the biggest worlds, and the most obtuse puzzles. Getting stuck in one of these games meant blindly slapping twenty or thirty doodads against every pixel on every screen until finding the one magical combination the designer had in mind. These lock-and-key puzzles drive Phantasmagoria, but several smart choices reduce the maddening tedium that plagued the genre's worst output, and make the game more accessible to first-time players. Mostly.

The inventory has space for eight items, and throughout the adventure, it's rarely even halfway full. This reduces the number of red herrings on hand in any given situation, and even if a stumped player falls back on the old "try every item on every hot spot technique," it doesn't take too long to cycle through three or four nicknacks. Furthermore, interactive hot spots are easy to find: simply mouse over the screen and watch for the cursor to turn from yellow to red. Some adventure games offer several options per hot spot (i.e., "Look," "Take," "Kiss," etc.), but Phantasmagoria sticks to generic "interaction," eliminating much potential guesswork. Additionally, there's a one-click hint system that offers a nudge in the right direction without giving away the solution. These are smart systems for easing in new players.

Beginners may have been the target audience, but designer Roberta Williams was no amateur. She had practically invented the graphic adventure fifteen years earlier with Mystery House, and perfected the genre in 1984 with King's Quest. By 1995, when Phantasmagoria saw release, Williams had already long since established herself as a master of her craft. Today, only a handful of other adventure game designers - Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer, Jane Jensen, and Al Lowe, perhaps - can approach her legacy, and that's being generous.

Given Phantasmagoria's pedigree, it's no wonder that smart design decisions abound. On the contrary, Williams' tremendous skill and experience makes the obvious missteps that much worse.

The game takes place across seven chapters, and chapters 2-6 are among the smoothest, most evenly paced examples of the graphic adventure ever produced. There's not much challenge, but there's not much frustration, either, and the constant forward momentum is addictive and rewarding. Most importantly, the puzzles make sense. For example, Don asks for drain cleaner at the start of chapter two. The solution? Find five bucks in the bedroom dresser, drive into town, walk into the general store, ask the cashier for drain cleaner, and pay for it.

Unfortunately, reaching this puzzle means first completing chapter one, a trial I can't imagine many beginners surmounting without outside help. Heck - I consider myself an adventure game vet, and I still had to rely on a walkthrough. It all comes back to that drain cleaner...

"Do you know what I could use? Some draaaaaain cleaner! Do we have any?" Don says meaningfully in chapter one. "Okay," I thought. "Better find some drain cleaner, then." So I wandered about, found a fiver, and found a general store. Yes, this was all making sense...

...Except the store was closed. Everything in town was closed. So, back to the house I went, clicking on everything I could find until I gave up and went back to the town to try again. The store was still closed, but now the real estate office next door was open. In my second scouring of the house, I had come upon a locked door. Apparently the real estate agent inside had forgotten to give this key to the main characters when he sold them the house.

Key in hand, I headed back to the locked door, headed inside, picked up a little black something, and proceeded to get totally stuck. So stuck, in fact, that I swallowed my pride and asked the game for a hint. Turns out you have to closely inspect the black thing (a skill that's never required before the point or after it), swivel it around, and press an invisible button to release a blade and discover that it's a letter opener. And what do you open with this letter opener? If you guessed a letter, congratulations! You're a rational person. Unfortunately, that won't help you solve this puzzle.

No, in this case the letter opener (LETTER. OPENER.) is used to open... a brick wall.


It's stupid. You know what the first thing that happens is when you use the letter opener on the bricks. It breaks! The correct solution to the puzzle I'd spent hours trying to solve is to break your letter opener against a freaking brick wall, then discard the broken letter opener pieces (which had once been a mysterious black something concealing a blade which could only be found by pressing a small, invisible button) and taking the wall apart by hand.

With this inscrutable puzzle out of the way, chapter one draws to a close, and chapter two opens with a clear objective: Buy some drain cleaner. And then the next five chapters zip by with nary a hiccup.

Chapter seven goes a little off the rails, but it's less a case of sloppy, careless design, and more a result of an abrupt shift in play style. To this point, time has only passed according to the player's actions. That is to say, the real estate office doesn't open at a particular time of day; it opens after the player discovers the locked door. Nothing happens until the player acts, and the player is never under any pressure to act quickly. Contrarily, the seventh chapter takes place in real time.

Once again, drain cleaner serves as a good example. One puzzle involves a crazed murderer's attack in the room with the clogged sink. Grab the drain cleaner from the counter, and you'll temporarily lose the assailant after you throw it in his face. Hesitate, though, and the main character will be dead in seconds. Every action demands fast thinking and fast reactions.

The introduction of death and real-time action so late in the game feels abrupt and a little gimmicky, but it is a fitting end in some ways. The majority of Phantasmagoria takes place in one house, and players have spent six chapters getting familiar with its layout. There was nothing to indicate that the black thing in chapter one might be a secret letter opener, and relying on such hidden information creates cheap, artificial difficulty. Killing the player for not instantly finding the right answer to each puzzle is cheap and artificial, but after six chapters, anyone would know that there's a bottle of acidic drain cleaner resting on the counter. It's not as smooth and forgiving as the rest of the game, but the difficulty is at least somewhat earned.

There is a fantastic entry-level adventure game in Phantasmagoria, but it's sandwiched between two frustrating, difficult chapters. A few missteps along the way could be overlooked, but putting the most illogical, confounding puzzle so near the beginning, and upping the challenge so drastically at the end, are baffling issues one wouldn't expect from the master of the genre. Overall, as an adventure game for newcomers, it can't be called a success for these reasons, but when it's good, it's great. A flawed classic, but a classic all the same.